The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

Expats, do you play with your identities? Are you an imposter or a chameleon?

Pretending to be a dead child is the cruelest trick you could play on a family.

Insinuating yourself into their lives, claiming falsely the intimacy and bonds that only exists between immediate family — mother and son; brother and sister — and to convince them that that son, that brother, that they feared murdered, has returned. There was, it transpires, nothing to worry about all along. You were fine. You are alive.

To succeed in such a deception scarcely seems possible. It sounds like the plot of a mystery novel, but it is, in fact, chillingly true. We have ourselves a real-life Talented Mr Ripley.

This post is concerned with the case of Frédéric Bourdin, a 23-year-old brown-eyed Frenchman who convinced a Texan family, the Barclays, that he was Nicholas, their missing blue-eyed teenage son and brother.

A conman, a fantasist, a sociopath, Bourdin already had a history of impersonating destitute children when in 1997 he convinced authorities in France and the US that he was the unruly child who at aged thirteen had disappeared from the Barclay family in San Antonio, Texas. The police presumed Nicholas was dead until Bourdin concocted a tale that the child had been snatched by a pedophile ring and brought to Europe. Bourdin lived with the Barclay family for three months before a private investigator revealed the truth.

With the release of the documentary film, The Imposter, directed by Bart Layton, the story of Bourdin has returned to the news. The film, a success at Sundance, is now in limited release in the US. Bourdin’s masquerade is so hard to believe, and so stranger than fiction, that it is of little surprise that is perfect material for a documentary.

This is not, however, the first time that the story of Bourdin has been depicted on the cinema screens. In 2010 a fictionalized account entitled The Chameleon was released, directed by Jean-Paul Salomé.

To be honest, The Chameleon is a disappointing film that despite being based on the most compelling of true-life tales is never itself compelling. (For anyone in the US who might be interested, it is available for streaming on Netflix.)

A better use of your time may be spent reading about Bourdin in David Grann’s essay “The Chameleon,” which belongs to his essay collection The Devil & Sherlock Holmes. This is where I first came across the story. The essay is actually available on The New Yorker Web site and I can’t recommend it enough.

Why, however, have we chosen this topic for The Displaced Nation? Well, we think that The Imposter is a film that you may be fascinated by, but we also think that there’s something about Bourdin’s tale, undeniably horrific and callous as it, that resonates with an expat audience. How did this man with his French accent convince others that he was an American teenager? In an interview with The Daily Telegraph, Bourdin stated that there was an unspoken collusion on the part of Nicholas Barclay’s mother, Beverly Dollarhide — that she knew damn well that this was not her son:

Most people who go to church don’t believe in God, very few of them really believe, but somewhere deep inside they try to convince themselves there is a God. It’s the same thing for the Dollarhide family. It happened exactly the same way.

Bourdin throughout his life has cruelly taken playing roles to an extremity. Despite being jailed for identity fraud after it is was revealed that he was not Nicholas Barclay, he continued to pass himself off as teenagers. In 2004 he claimed to be a Spanish adolescent whose mother had been killed in that year’s Madrid train bombings. The next year he again pretended to be a Spanish orphan, this time claiming that he lost his parents in a car accident.

While none of us play roles to that extent, this imposter and chameleon aspect of Bourdain’s personality is — though I am aware that I over-reaching here somewhat to make a point — reflected in many of our lives as expats.

I know that I find myself occupying roles I had previously not thought I would before. Sometimes I am the imposter. I play a role that isn’t me. In my case, it may be exaggerating national characteristics and language that I feel people expect of me, but that I would never use back home. At other times, I find myself trying to be the chameleon. Trying to scrub away my otherness so that no attention is drawn to me because I sound different, or behave differently.

What about you? What sort of an expat do you find yourself to be. In your adopted home, do you find yourself, at time, to be a chameleon? Or are you more an imposter?

STAY TUNED for Tuesday’s post, a list of travel situations that spell H-O-R-R-O-R!

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Image: MorgueFile 

7 responses to “Expats, do you play with your identities? Are you an imposter or a chameleon?

  1. expatlogue October 15, 2012 at 10:38 pm

    Brilliant post! Compelling and insightful in equal measure. Life is full of grey areas where worlds collide, thank you for showing us where the impersonator and the expat overlap. As my old Criminology lecturer used to say, “There’s none so strange as folk!”

  2. Sezin Koehler October 16, 2012 at 5:34 pm

    I think of myself as a hybrid monster. 🙂

  3. ML Awanohara October 17, 2012 at 6:56 pm

    I really like this post as well — I think you are shrewd to point out that the line between chameleon and imposter is in fact rather blurred. As noted in one of the posts in my repatriation series, I was for a long time rather proud of my ability to go with the flow and blend into other cultures — until it finally struck me that the reason for this is that I didn’t have much of a core! I’m not sure precisely when that epiphany occurred, but I do remember one occasion when I was in an English train station with my mother and stepfather and we needed to know something about the schedule. An English lady overheard me talking and said: “I wouldn’t ask them, dear; they’re Americans.” By that time, I was so anglicized that I could appreciate how the situation looked to her. I didn’t bother correcting her by saying, that’s my mother you’re talking about! Whenever I think of that incident now, I’m filled with horror at how far away I’d drifted away from my own people and culture…

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